By Shahnaz Khan
Will separation of state and religion contradict the spirit of the creation of Pakistan? Does this division threaten Islam? Should the state regulate the religious beliefs and activities of ALL Muslims? These questions are being hotly debated in Pakistan, with the primary focus on either the two nation theory or the vision of Jinnah. It, perhaps, may be more productive to review historical data and some fundamental principles of Islam in resolving these issues. After all this controversy is neither unique to Pakistan or Islam. It will also be helpful to define a secular state: A state which is not hostile to religion but is neutral to the religious preference of its citizens.
The early European settlers in North America were deeply religious people—Puritans or Anglicans—victims of religious oppression in Europe, who came in search of a place where they could practice their faith without fear of persecution. So after the United States won independence, the debate whether to have a secular or faith-based constitution was as fierce and emotional as it is in Pakistan right now. Finally, based on the arguments that a secular state does not result in freedom FROM religion but in freedom OF religion, and that religious freedom is a fundamental right of all people, the majority agreed: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”. The same scenario applies to Pakistan today, which was created so that Muslims can practice their faith without fear but where citizens not only belong to different religions but there are diverse and divergent interpretations of the religious texts even among Muslims. At the same time the fact that there are non-Muslim citizens of Pakistan, cannot be ignored.
History is witness that the state’s authority to enforce religious laws is often misused to strengthen the hands of the rulers. While the torturing and killing of those who dissented, including great philosophers and scientists, due to the joinder of the church and state in the West is well documented, Muslims, however have yet to come to terms with many examples of the persecution of religious scholars in Islamic history because they did not comply with caliph’s various demands, like Imam Abu Hanifa, who was imprisoned and tortured when he declined Caliph Al-Mansur’s offer to become the Chief Justice of the state or Imam Malik who was beaten and publically humiliated for declaring that the oath of allegiance to Al-Mansur was invalid because it was obtained under threat. During various caliphates and sultanates ulemas were appointed as qazis, muftis and imams, thus linking their economic interests to pleasing the ruler. It led to their justifying prostration before the ruler, kissing their feet or hands and addressing them with high sounding titles like zill-i-Ilahi (shadow of God), issuing fatwas to legalize the actions of the ruler, eventually becoming completely subservient to the state. The State’s authority to regulate religion is akin to imposing mortal and imperfect human beings as custodians of everyone’s faith.
From the theological perspective, one of Islam’s fundamental principles is that there is no coercion in religion. Those who believe in Islam’s inherent power and ability to appeal to the human mind will support the separation of state and religion — not just in Pakistan but all over the world. And all people will be free to think and act as God intended us to do.
If Pakistan was created so that ALL Muslims have religious freedom, then only a secular constitution can guarantee this. After all, the fact is that Muslims are not a monolithic body of people with uniformity of religious thought and practice but interpret the religious scriptures in many diverse ways, which are at times diametrically opposed to each other. Giving state the power to enforce religion will necessarily mean that everyone will have to accept the official version of Islam. And what about religious minorities? Do we want to follow the principle of equal citizenship with equal rights and responsibilities for all or treat them as second class citizens? Pakistanis need to think carefully without getting emotional about this issue and allowing political and religious powers, who stand to gain from this, to dictate their faith. A secular constitution will guarantee religious liberty for all, abolish the State’s power to enforce religious uniformity by intimidation, and forbid the use of public funds or state’s infrastructure and clout to promote its own agenda in the name of religion.
We need to remember the dangers of combining the power of the state with the power of religion. It will lead to religious tyranny and elimination of space for critical thinking, questioning of dogmas and any fresh ideas in matters of religion. Those scholars who will tow the official line will be not only rewarded materially but will gain access to political powers and decision making authority in all spheres of human life, while those who have different point of view or challenge the state’s interpretation of religious laws will be threatened, tormented and intimidated. Those who believe that religion is a living, breathing force that has to adopt to the changing needs of the human beings will have to stand up and raise their voice against any move that will promote fossilization of religious thought and create hegemony of few over many in matters of faith.
Wasn’t it interesting to note when recently the king of Saudi Arabia granted the power of vote and to compete in elections to women saying that he had asked the permission of religious scholars (appointed by the state) on this issue? In reality he did this for political expediency and if anyone thinks otherwise they are only fooling themselves. Why did the so called scholars not raise their voice on this issue before (and in fact against many others oppressing laws against women)? It is actually a mockery of religion when it can be used to suit the needs of the Monarchy or any other state structure.
To come back to the questions posed in the beginning of the article, the answer to all of them is, “NO”. Please think about it logically, rationally and patiently. There is a lot at stake on this issue and you have the power to make the choice that will have enormous impact on the future generations.